In today’s episode, we’ll be going over the life of Catherine the Great. From being a foreigner of Russia to it’s Empress, learn with me about the life of one of Russia’s greatest rulers as she brought in it’s golden age.
Welcome back to the 18th Century Podcast. I am your host, Cj. In today’s episode, we’ll be going over the life of Catherine the Great. I thought this was appropriate to make this episode now given the fact that HBO is releasing a miniseries about Catherine the Great, which comes out this Monday, October 21st, 2019. I am not endorsed by HBO. If you’d like to read the script for this episode and its citations, go to 18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them. Let’s kick things off by taking a look at Catherine’s early life.
PART 1 EARlY LIFE
Cathrine was born on May 2, 1729. But her name wasn’t Cathrine at the time. Her birth name was Sophia Frederike Auguste, and she was born in Stettin, Prussia. Her father was Prussian Prince Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst. Her mother was Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Though her family was royalty, money was sparse. She would be educated by a French governess, among other tutors. Her education was common for a person of her rank. She was instructed in French and German. She also had lessons in history, music, and religion. She was brought up in the Lutheran faith. She would first meet her future husband who also happened to be her second cousin when she was ten. This meeting took place as a political arrangement by Peter III’s aunt, Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Sophia did not like Peter III on their first meeting, as she found him to be detestable. Empress Elizabeth took a liking to Sophia. Sophia would travel to Russia in 1744 with the prospect of marriage to Peter III. The reason for their union was pure politics. It was an arrangement between Frederick the Great and Empress Elizabeth, to strengthen the ties between their countries. Sophia would learn the Russian language, and do it with a fervent passion. Though her accent would remain foreign, She became near fluent in the language. In March of 1744, she did suffer a bout of phenomena, but it didn’t keep her down for long. In 1745, Sophia would convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, and received the new name, Catherine. Her father disapproved of her conversion, as being a devout Luthern himself. The day after Catherine converted, she formally married Peter III. Their marriage ceremony took place on August 21st. Her father would not travel to Russia to attend the ceremony. After their wedding, they settled into a palace. Their marriage wouldn’t go down in history as a happy one. Peter would spend his time making people act out drills, playing with toy soldiers, and chasing women. He supposedly had a consort. Catherine was rumored to have multiple consorts herself, but she also enjoyed passing the time by reading. The pair would produce a son, who was welcomed into the world in 1754, he was named Paul and would become a future Czar of Russia. Unfortunately for Catherine, her son was taken from her almost immediately after his birth. He was to be raised under the guise of his grandmother, Empress Elizabeth. Cathrine was allowed to see her son briefly during his christening a month later, and then again six months afterward. Peter had little to no interest in being a parent, but from what I can infer, Cathrine did. She would produce another child, and this time it would be a daughter, Anna, who would tragically die an infant in 1757. She would produce one more son, Alexi. Then in 1762, Empress Elizabeth died, leaving Peter III to take the throne.
PART 2 THE COUP
In 1762, Empress Elizabeth died, which then Peter ascended to the throne as the Czar of Russia. Cathrine and Peter III moved from their Winter Palace to Saint Petersburg. Peter III had a fascination with Fredrick the Great, but his fascination seemed to alienate some of the Russian politicians. He changed sides in the Seven Years War, allying himself with his once enemy, Prussia. Cathrine wasn’t a big fan of her husband’s new policies either. There was a dispute between the Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over a province. Peter III started to gear up for war against Denmark over this dispute, but he didn’t find much support for it in the Capitol. Many politicians viewed the possible war as unnecessary, and a waste. Along with disgruntled politicians, Cathrine hatched a plot to overthrow her husband and take the throne for herself. During July of 1762, Peter III took a holiday along with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives. He was just about six months into his reign at this point. Cathrine and her conspirators plotted the whole time, but their plan would have to move quicker than they thought. July 8th, 1762, Cathrine is woken in the night being informed that one of the conspirators has been arrested. The time to act is now. Cathrine raced out of the palace and made her way to a regiment of soldiers. She gave a speech asking for their protection, and the swore fealty to her. The regiment followed her as she made her way to the Semenovsky Barracks, where members of the clergy were waiting for her. The orthodox clergy ordained Cathrine as Empress of Russia. Now with the military backing her, the clergy, and some members of the State, she had everything in place. The only thing left was for Peter III to formally abdicate. Under Catherine’s orders, Peter III was arrested, and he signed a document formally abdicating. On July 17th, Peter III was killed. He reigned for about six months in total. It is not known if Catherine had a hand in his death. But now, everything was in place for Catherine to rule. We’re going to take a short break, and when we come back we’ll discuss Catherine’s time as Empress.
PART 3 EMPRESS OF RUSSIA
Welcome back. Cathrine’s reign would bring Russia into a golden age. She was an advocate of The Enlightenment and implemented its ideas into her rule. Yet those ideas would be set in the years to come. One of her first acts as Empress was to recall the troops sent to fight Denmark, which prevented a war. This was a popular decision among the military at the time and granted her more of their favor. Under Peter, church land was seized, Cathrine returned the land to the church. However, later in her reign, she would nationalize the church. She attempted to model herself after Peter the Great. He was still a popular figure even after a few decades since his passing. She would also push for domestic reform to benefit her subjects. She advocated for a document known as the Nakaz, which would have outlawed capital punishment and torture. It also sought to see every man equal before the law. She also attempted to set reforms for the benefit of the serfs but it wasn’t popular in the Senate. She eventual got the Nakaz finalized. What happened next was the formation of the Legislative Commission, which would conduct its first meeting in 1767. No laws were brought forth from the Legislative Commission, but Russians from across the country got together to discuss matters for the first time in their history. The Legislative Commission was disbanded in 1768 when war broke out with the Ottomans. But this was triggered by conflict in Poland. She had made decent gains in Poland and gifted the country to one of her ex-lovers. Russia had a dispute by how Russian Orthodox practitioners were treated in Poland and this lead to the conflict. In 1772 the partition of Poland would occur. Her military escapades angered the Ottomans and they went to war with one another. In a way, this was a political blessing. She gained many victories over the Ottomans and established Russia as a military power in the world. She reached a peace treaty with the Ottomans in 1774, and yet again would expand Russian territory. On the homefront, however, she would face numerous peasant revolts. The peasants, or serfs, were tied to their owners, essentially being treated like slaves in all but name. between 1762 to 1769 there were around 50 minor revolts, all of which were put down. This tension would come to a head with Pugachev’s Rebellion, which lasted from 1773 to 1775. The serfs had some initial success but were eventually squashed. The leader of the rebellion was betrayed and captured. He was beheaded in Moscow in 1775, thus ending the rebellion. Cathrine’s early attitudes of liberalizing Russia were diminished after the rebellion. She wished to rescind the reforms she had made in favor of the serfs. During the 18th Century, Russia was viewed as a backwoods country with outdated ideas. Cathrine sought to bring Russia back into the light of her fellow Europeans. She implemented many education reforms and expanded educational opportunities for both boys and girls. In 1766, the Russian Cadet Corp school received some reforms. This military academy was more liberalized and began to teach other subjects along with the cadets’ military education. On the religious front, she was more relaxed in her personal life but understood the church as a political tool. The nationalization of the church would help fund the State’s treasury. She was more tolerant of other beliefs though. In 1773 she passed the Toleration of All Faiths Edict. This allowed Muslims living within Russia to practice their religion and build mosques. Though she was a little strict with Roman Catholics, she was more lenient to Jesuits. In her personal life, she was a fan of the arts. As someone who had entertained the ideas of The Enlightenment, she did have a correspondence with Voltaire.
PART 4 FINAL YEARS
In her final years of life, Cathrine grew more and more conservative in her views. In 1785 she issued the Charter of the Nobility. The Charter would grant more power to the Nobility which was a reversal of what she wished to accomplish in her younger years. During the same year, it was declared that the Jewish population was foreign. Taxes would double for the Jews within Russia. In 1794, she declared Jews to have no relation with the State of Russia. Her relationship with her son Paul was poor, and she favored her grandchildren more, in particular, her grandson, Alexander. As she grew older her mind remained active and did not falter. She would see one more war in her life, this time with the Turks or Ottomans. They declared war on Russia in 1787, and the fighting would last four years resulting in a Russian victory and expansion of territory. In the 1790s, there were rebellions from Poland, but the country eventually got annexed out of existence between Russia, and her allies. As time dragged on in the 1790s, Cathrine would grow more and more concerned with her son Paul. She saw him as emotionally unfit, and this might liken back to her late husband. She preferred her grandson Alexander to be her heir, but she did not have time to make the official change. On November 17th, 1796, Cathrine the Great, died of a stroke.
Cathrine was a towering figure of the 18th Century and truly was one of the greats. I found her story fascinating. Again, the HBO miniseries on Cathrine is premiering Monday, October 21st, 2019. I’m not endorsed by HBO. I’ll probably watch the series, and I might give a review of it once it’s finished. The script and citations for this episode and all other episodes can be found at 18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them. If you’d like to support the show, please share it and leave a review. I’ve been your host Cj, and thank you for listening to this episode of the 18th Century Podcast.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Biography of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.” ThoughtCo, Sep. 15, 2019, thoughtco.com/catherine-the-great-p2-3528624.
“Catherine II.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 21 June 2019, https://www.biography.com/royalty/catherine-ii.
“History – Catherine the Great.” BBC, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/catherine_the_great.shtml.
Boundless. “Boundless World History.” Lumen, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-worldhistory/chapter/catherine-the-great-and-russia/.